Calm Before the Storm: “Wander Awhile With Me, Said Wind”
[just recounting, told by an optimistic and much recovered backpacker]
January 17, 2014. I woke up like a child on holiday—a polite footfall outside my room brushes away my dreams. My eyes snap open like the shutter of a camera. Warm anticipation brews. I take a deep breath, quelling the surging feeling that I’ve already wasted time sleeping. It’s day two of many, I think to myself, no need to be frantic. Indeed, yesterday I’ve told many curious travelers that I hope to travel for about a year or “until the money runs out.” Plenty of time left. With that thought I begin what will become my Suk 11 morning routine: breath through light yoga, dress, deep breath, and walk downstairs.
In the main room, I’m greeted by a cast of morning characters that will soon become quite familiar—sleepy (or hung over) travelers on their various Cyberspace Age devices, and a greedy gang of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. I sustain several bites within minutes of sitting down at the communal WiFi table…which interestingly has a dead zone in exactly one human-sized corner of the bench seat that is inexplicably closer to the router. An irritated German business traveler confirmed this several times with executive zeal: “I sit here for nearly an hour yesterday, and I have all zees emails to write, and it no work and argh!” Pardon the digression: as a computers guy I remember these things, and the mosquitoes suck (pardon the pun) but whatever.
Breakfast is gloriously free..if you pay for the [possibly overpriced] room at Suk 11. One cup of coffee or tea, two slices of toast, and two pieces of fruit. The fruit is the winning showcase: a slice of refreshing watermelon and a wedge of pineapple that drips glucous, fresh and sweeter than your first kiss. It’s good to be in the tropics; the plentiful fruit carts around here tempt you with vibrant local treats. Some I can identify: pineapple, mango, papaya, star fruit, pomegranates, bananas, and–my favorite oddity–pitaya or “dragon-fruit”. Others remind me of action figures from the Pixar movie Monster’s Inc: mangosteen (มังคุค), rambutan (เงาะ), and durian (ทุเรียน) to name some (more here). Enough food porn, though.
My Swedish friends from yesterday soon join me and ask if I’d like to explore with them, to which I gladly agree. They exemplify my (biased?) opinion of good backpacker friends: well-balanced, personality-wise; both friendly and thoughtful; and each will go separate ways eventually–David to Malaysia and onward for coastal adventures, Anton to the Himalayas for trekking and climbing. For me, I’m more keen on their genuine interest in avoiding touristy haunts, so I join them.
And indeed, we soon sample bits of everyday life in Bangkok. First is a crowded ride on the BTS skytrain, which is quite like any other modern public transit—same same but different, as they say, where different for me is the overwhelming numbers of Asians, the table turn of ethnic majority. Indeed, it’s a bit odd traveling with a couple of white Europeans as an Asian American. I feel as foreign as they do, surely, yet the locals will often address me in Thai as if I’m a Bangkok expat or a tour guide. I think I’ll hold off more thoughts on the subject of being an Asian American in Asia until I have a bit more experience and thoughts on the matter.
After a brief business stop in the Hua Lampong train station–really just a bare plaza filled with sitting, squatting, and lounging Thais and foreigners–we set off to find food. This lands us at a local restaurant a few blocks down the street. Here, another “not in Kansas anymore” moment. The restaurant is actually the garage of a townhouse (presumably the owner’s) filled with haphazardly colored plastic tables and seats reminiscent of Fisher Price toys. Out front, a simple food cart containing a display case for the vegetables and meat and a heated wok identifies the restaurant. Despite the restaurant’s modest appearance, the food is both delicious and cheap; we dine hungrily in the sweltering heat next to the owner and her employees, who are chattering about the televised news of the Bangkok riots blaring from an old TV.
After lunch, we dive into a narrow and cluttered alley that brings us to a local neighborhood. We enter a courtyard between towering apartments, lit by a hazy afternoon sunshine that filters down through the maze of drying clothes strung between the verandas of the opposing apartments. Local Thais lounge under shaded verandas and eye us with harmless curiosity. It would seem that these locals don’t work in the tourism industry, or at least not directly; they seem pleased to “talk” with foreigners (“where you from?” “do you like Bangkok?”) and a little bemused. An older inhabitant makes a remark to his wife, and both chuckle. My hypothesized translation: “My goodness, those poor foreigners are lost.”
We decide to end our daytime quest and prepare for the backpacker party chaos that is the infamous Khao San Rd. But on our way back, we have one more adventure in store! The sky train empties us above Sukhumvit Road, which is a seething, shoulder to shoulder mass of protesting Thais. It’s part of the Bangkok protests! I almost laugh at the Western press’ over-exaggerated clucking about the risk for tourists. Largely, the “riot” here (and most places away from the government sectors) is very akin to an outdoor rally . Roadblocks thwart traffic and stage—alternately hosting a Thai rock band and a megaphone’d speaker—sits prominently in the center of a major intersection. The crowd cheers and blows whistles, sings national anthems and songs in unison, and shouts responses to the speaker. Enterprising vendors line the streets, squatting on blankets next to their “Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand” paraphernalia–armbands, headbands, t-shirts, whistles, and flags all themed with Thailand’s red white and blue stripes.
Anton and David are content to watch momentarily and then return to the hostel for a siesta. I stay briefly to buy a t-shirt and mingle with the crowd, but not for long. I’m remarkably tired—jet lag aside, traveling lifestyle has a way of sapping your energy. It’s not just the excessive walking and moving; it’s the drain of contextual novelty, the mental calories that you end up burning because everything is different. [Nerdism] In truth, it starts from the fundamental monad of looking for traffic in the opposite direction before crossing the street and—moving up the chain of complexity—compounds demands on your body and mind [End nerd]. But it’s blissfully exhausting. Anywho I’m waxing..or waning (can never remember the distinction)..but definitely wabbering, so I’ll leave off. Up next is part one point three: the chaotic and hopelessly Western people safari of Khao San Road. Deep breathe.
Footnotes for the Curious Reader